is paganism a living tradition with roots deep in prehistory or just a collection of superstitions, magic tricks and witches’ spells? Pagans explores the origins, history and beliefs of Europe’s ancient religions.
Looks back to a time before sex was taboo, when humans saw themselves as an integral part of the natural world. Through history and prehistory, the representations of the ancient gods and traditions followed by pagans have been marred by propaganda from other religious groups eager to rein in those they defined as wild barbarians. In truth, the word pagan is a Roman term meaning ‘country folk’, and the general concept of paganism is of oneness with nature and a quest to fully understand the world around us.
Though historical accounts lead us to images of stone dildo-wielding women flashing their genitals at cattle, chieftains having sex with horses before slaughtering them and whipping sessions in mixed saunas, the underlying theme is of human similarity with animals and nature.
Today magic is used as a form of entertainment. It still thrills us to see an apparently impossible phenomenon happen before our eyes. Reaching back through to prehistoric times, the pagan magicians, who could conjure material from nothing or predict the future, would almost certainly have been held in the highest regard. They would not have been tricksters like the conjurers of today. In historic and prehistoric times, it would have taken great knowledge to understand the seasons, through their relationship to solstice.
Predicting this yearly cycle would have been crucial to the agricultural societies of the time – a science to those who understood, but magic to those who didn’t. The fine art of producing the first bronze artefacts would also have been greatly respected. The ability to produce a knife from an ore is still magical, even though we now understand the chemistry. As for drug-induced shamans talking to the spirits, they must have appeared exceptionally powerful.
Band of Brothers
According to Roman records, the Iron Age Celtic peoples of Britain consisted of war-like tribes – but this could well be propaganda of the age. In 43 AD, as now, invaders found ways of justifying their subjugation of the native people whose country they colonized and whose land they took. Whatever the reality, the image of rough, heavy-drinking hooligans and evil barbarians is what we have been left with. Pagan society in the Iron Age was certainly based on a strong system of tribal groups controlling different parts of the country, each with its own warrior class. However the accusations of barbarism could equally be a stereotyped reaction against these ‘uncivilised’ cultures. The truth is that, though bands of fighting men may well have dominated much of society, the basis of a proto-democracywas also in action.
A strong pagan belief is that the natural world is embedded in all of us. One method of defining the landscape is by building monuments. The construction of tombs at the boundaries of territory illustrates to outsiders that the area is rightfully yours, since it belonged to your ancestors. A succession of ritual monuments known throughout prehistoric Europe, from wooden trackways to henges (stone or wooden circles), suggest the strong influence of altering the landscape as a way of defining territory within the pagan belief system.So what happens when people cannot lay claim to their territory by marking it with the graves or other signs that their ancestors lived there?
The Nebra Star Disc
The Nebra Sky Disk is a bronze disk with a blue-green patina (originally black) and inlaid with gold symbols. These are interpreted generally as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars (including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades). Two golden arcs along the sides, marking the angle between the solstices, were added later. A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes (of uncertain meaning, interpreted as a Sun ship with numerous oars). The disk is attributed to a site near Nebra in Germany, and associatively dated to c. 1600 BCE. It has been associated with the Bronze Age Unetice culture.
The Unetice culture is distinguished by its characteristic metal objects including ingot torcs, flat axes, flat triangular daggers, bracelets with spiral-ends, disk- and paddle-headed pins and curl rings which are distributed over a wide area of Central Europe and beyond. Linguists have determined through an analysis of hydronomic patterns that the people of this culture must have spoken Indo-European languages, with pre-proto-Germanic characteristics in the area to the north of the Sudeten and Ore Mountain ranges, including the site where the Nebra Sky Disk was manufactured and deposited.
The discovery site is a prehistoric enclosure encircling the top of a 252 metres elevation in the Ziegelroda Forest, known as Mittelberg ("central hill"), some 60 km west of Leipzig. The surrounding area is known to have been settled since the Neolithic and Ziegelroda Forest is said to contain around 1,000 barrows, whose occupants are of a physical type still common in North Central Europe today. The enclosure is oriented in such a way that the sun seems to set every solstice behind the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountains, some 80 km to the north-west. The significance of the site to prehistoric dwellers is underlined by the proximity to the much older Goseck circle. Archaeologists generally agree that Goseck circle was used for astronomical observation. Together with calendar calculations, it allowed coordinating an easily judged lunar calendar with the more demanding measurements of a solar calendar, embodied in a spiritual religious context.
The Nebra Sky Disk is likewise considered to be an astronomical instrument as well as an item of religious significance. The find reconfirms that the astronomical knowledge and abilities of the people of the European Bronze Age included close observation of the yearly course of the Sun, and the angle between its rising and setting points at summer and winter solstice. While Stonehenge and the Neolithic circular ditches such as the 5th millennium BCE Goseck circle were used to mark the solstices, the disk is the oldest known portable instrument to allow such measurements.